Two days before Christmas, Gov. Kate Brown pressed state agencies and school leaders to prioritize restoring in-person learning for more school children in the first several weeks of 2021. She called reducing the spread of COVID-19 and a safe return to campuses “the greatest gift we can give to Oregon’s children this holiday season.”

As she spelled out several new policies, including changing mandatory COVID-19 metrics into advice districts could consider rather than adhere to, Brown set a Feb. 15 goal for schools “to return students to in-person instruction, especially elementary students.”

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But schools that meet that target date will likely reopen before teachers and other key campus staff have been vaccinated against the virus.

That reality is causing debate among educators and local leaders and more uncertainty for parents and students.

In the days leading up to Brown’s announcement of loosened regulations, the vast majority of Oregon students were attending class remotely. Just before winter break, less than 10% of Oregon’s estimated 580,000 students were receiving some form of in-person instruction, according to the Oregon Department of Education data.

Staff and 24-hour care residents at Rose Villa received the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. Many Oregon educators and school staff won't be vaccinated by the time the state plans to widely reopen many schools under new COVID-19 regulations.

Staff and 24-hour care residents at Rose Villa received the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. Many Oregon educators and school staff won't be vaccinated by the time the state plans to widely reopen many schools under new COVID-19 regulations.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

However, as Oregon leaders like Brown press to bring more students back to the classroom, top officials are also acknowledging the importance of getting teachers and other school staff vaccinated against COVID-19. School employees are now considered part of “Phase 1b” — the next round of people to receive COVID-19 vaccines. That means they’ll be in line for vaccines after healthcare workers and people at long-term care facilities, ahead of the general public.

But vaccinations have been going more slowly than planned. According to data released by the Oregon Health Authority, 44,415 people had received initial doses of the vaccine as of New Year’s Day.

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In response to an inquiry from OPB, state health and education officials acknowledged that vaccinations for school staff aren’t even expected to begin until after the Feb. 15 target for reopening schools. Essential workers in the Phase 1b category should begin being vaccinated in late February, state officials said in an email to OPB.

Different districts, different decisions

Some school districts are moving ahead regardless of vaccines. Both school districts in Klamath County have plans to start providing in-person instruction by the second week of January. School officials at the Eugene 4J district announced even before Gov. Brown’s announcement that they would move toward a hybrid of in-person and distance learning in early February.

But other districts, including Oregon’s largest, are being more cautious.

Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said in October that schools would hold off on bringing students back in-person until the start of February at the earliest. That time frame will almost certainly be pushed back.

“We need educators and school staff to have access to vaccinations before we re-open,” PPS spokesperson Karen Werstein said in a Dec. 30 email. “Right now, we are keeping a close watch on the rollout of vaccinations and look forward to PPS school staff being able to access vaccines at the beginning of phase 1B, per Gov. Brown’s confirmation last week.”

The unions that represent Oregon teachers have expressed skepticism at Brown’s push for reopenings. Some teachers worry that school buildings and classroom practices can’t be made sufficiently safe during a global pandemic. The Oregon Education Association was critical of Brown’s Feb. 15 target and policy changes, saying they would lead to “uncertainty” and a “patchwork” of different approaches across the state.

The Oregon School Boards Association was more supportive; the state legislature just approved one of that group’s key criteria for reopening: granting schools liability protection from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

“This next step will require close coordination with local health authorities,” OSBA executive director Jim Green said in a press release after Brown’s Dec. 23 announcement. “Above all, we want to minimize risks as we return to in-person instruction.”

But if minimizing risk involves vaccinating school staff, reopening schools won’t happen quickly, and won’t happen in time to meet the governor’s Feb. 15 reopening goal.

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